Two battles for the postseason are going on as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series enters the final three races of the regular season.
There is the fight simply to qualify to become one of the 16 drivers eligible for the playoffs. Then there is the continuing season-long battle between Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch to have the points lead when the totals are reset to 2,000 points plus bonus points gained during the regular season.
If the playoffs started this weekend instead of Sept. 16 in the South Point 400 at Las Vegas International Speedway, Harvick, who has won a season-high seven races and leads the regular season, would start the 10-race elimination series with a 10-point lead over Busch, who has won six races.
Reigning Monster Energy Champion Martin Truex Jr. would be in third but with a strong advantage over Clint Bowyer.
Nothing can be taken for granted, but "The Big Three" will start with point totals that will give them cushions for mistakes as drivers begin to be eliminated over three races leading into the championship race Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"You've seen these playoffs and how these three weeks at a time work," said Harvick, who comes off a win in Michigan last Sunday. "That's why, in my opinion, it's so important to have the bonus points and everything that goes with it. Homestead is such a unique race track. But you've got to get there first."
And that's the issue for several drivers who are near the cut line for the playoffs.
With Harvick, Busch and Truex having combined to win 17 of the first 23 races, Bowyer, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano, Erik Jones and Austin Dillon are the only other drivers to have automatically qualified for the playoffs with wins.
Since NASCAR instituted its playoff system, the Cup Series has never had fewer than 10 drivers qualify with race wins. That seems likely to happen this season.
Harvick, Busch and Truex have consistently had the best cars, and with the final two races of the regular season contested on superspeedways in Darlington (S.C.) and Indianapolis, one of those three will be favored to win those races.
The Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race on Saturday might be the best final opportunity for a non-qualified driver to lock up a spot with a victory.
Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway is a half-mile oval, and while Harvick, Busch and Truex are also strong on short tracks, the cramped conditions should keep the pack together — creating the best opportunity to steal a late-season victory.
The three drivers closest to the cut line – Aric Almirola, Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman – will be hoping that if they don't win, no one below them does because that would make one less playoff spot available.